Summer presents both a unique opportunity and a unique challenge when it comes to STEM education. On the one hand, it has traditionally been a time of enrichment and reinforcement. For students enrolled in a high-quality program, summer can be a time of discovery, innovation, and enhancement. And for students who may be in need of supplemental support, it can be a productive time for revisiting key concepts from the school year.

On the other hand, summer has also been seen as a difficult time for students and educators alike due to what is dubbed the “summer slide” which is the loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of the summer. A recent study showed that children in grades three through five lost, on average, about 20% of their school-year gains in reading and 27% of their school-year gains in math during summer break.

COVID-19 introduced additional complexities to summer programs. Sixty-two percent of programs were physically closed last summer, reducing access for many families. This lack of access was more pronounced among low-income parents, with 35% percent of these parents stating that they would have enrolled their child in a summer program if one was available, and 62% of these parents stating that their child would have liked to attend a summer program but was unable to do so.

Each summer brings with it opportunity, and summer 2021 is no different, with the potential to be an impactful time to counteract the learning loss of the last school year and summer. Data show 29% of students in grades K-8 began the 2020-2021 school year unprepared for on-grade level math instruction; even more extreme gaps in STEM course preparedness are expected for this fall. Summer 2021 also has the potential to be a moment of widespread re-engagement for students who have become disillusioned and disconnected following a difficult year for learning. In order to be successful in this regard, summer programs will have to employ novel strategies and significant resources, particularly in STEM which benefits from hands-on experiential learning.

Key considerations for summer 2021

In order to adequately address student needs, summer programs will need to consider the following important questions:

  • How do various modes of enrichment (virtual, in-person, hybrid) lead to differing outcomes for students? 
  • What is the right balance between engagement (which is often characterized by experiential, hands-on, “fun” summer programming) and academic recovery (which is often more akin to the traditional summer school model of instruction and remediation)?
  • How can programs reach and serve students furthest from opportunity?
  • With the number of summer programs that were closed last summer, how can programs ensure they are financially equipped to serve students successfully this summer?
  • How can summer programs effectively work with school districts and in-school partners to reach more students?
  • Many educators feel fatigued after a challenging year of virtual instruction. How can summer programs ensure they’ll have adequate staffing?

Our approach to summer

Overdeck Family Foundation’s Inspired Minds portfolio considered the above questions and the role of philanthropic support in addressing them. Our hypothesis is that supporting a diverse cadre of approaches to STEM summer enrichment will result in increased options for students. By supporting organizations like Science Action Club, Camp & Club Invention, BellXcel, and Imagine Science, the Inspired Minds portfolio aims to make summer 2021 a time when evidence-based options are more easily accessible and available to more students. 

Below are the organizations we’re supporting for summer STEM this year and our rationale behind why we funded at this time.

Science Action Club

Science Action Club (SAC), the flagship national educational program at the California Academy of Sciences, features hands-on nature challenges and citizen science activities that build STEM interest and identity in middle school youth. Using an interactive online training and instructor-led workshops, SAC enrolls hundreds of afterschool clubs and summer camps annually. After participating in SAC, 80% of youth agreed that science is fun and 96% of adults felt prepared to help students build their STEM identities—a 10 and 20% increase respectively. Our one-year pilot grant of $200,000 will support these continued impacts while strengthening SAC’s efforts to scale.

Students engaged in the Bug Safari activity at Science Action Club.

What makes SAC stand out?

Estimates show that 11 million children missed out on environmental or outdoor science focused programs because of COVID-19 over the past year, and 60% of these children are from low-income or minority communities. Through curricula that teaches environmental literacy and citizen science, SAC brings STEM activities, training, and kits to programs in dire need. Additionally, by providing a sliding fee scale, SAC makes robust efforts to enroll students furthest from opportunity. Their project-based, hands-on content builds student engagement and interest in STEM and nature, which is especially impactful after a year where experiential learning opportunities were rare for most youth.
To facilitate data sharing and collaboration between club youth and professional scientists, SAC leverages partnerships with citizen science projects like iNaturalist, NASA and GLOBE Observer, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These partnerships are critical to youth achieving gains in science interest and STEM identity because they connect program participants with experts in the field, enabling them to observe how the data they collect in SAC is integrated into ongoing research projects and to see themselves in STEM roles.

Image provided by Camp Invention.

Camp Invention

Camp Invention® is an authentic, hands-on STEM program for children in grades K-6. Led by certified educators, Camp Invention programs run nationwide every summer. The camps combine an invention education approach with engaging STEM programming, using the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of invention as a way to promote STEM skill and mindset gains. Data show that attending one week of Camp Invention results in statistically significant improvements in creativity, STEM interest, and problem-solving skills. Our three-year grant of $1,650,000 will support Camp and Club Invention as they expand program reach. 

What makes Camp Invention stand out?

The impact of attending a Camp Invention program extends into the school year, where students increased in attendance, test scores, and average GPA. Evidence showed that 65% of students moved from below average to an average range of MAP Math and 50% of students with high-risk rates of absence demonstrated excellent attendance after participating in Camp Invention, meaning they missed eight or fewer days in a school year. Even educators benefitted—after participating in the 2020 Camp Invention program, 96% of educators reported that the program will lead them to foster more risk-taking in their classroom and 93% said that it will lead them to incorporate more open-ended inquiry as an instruction technique.


BellXcel is an evidence-based solution that helps youth organizations and schools design and manage rigorous academic summers for children living in low-income urban communities. The four-to-six-week program for grades K-8 blends instruction with hands-on enrichment, field trips, and community engagement. On average, participants of BellXcel-powered programs show two to two-and-a-half months of math gains through the summer learning experience. Our two-year grant of $2,000,000 will support the delivery of BellXcell’s SaaS solution to an increasingly diverse partner portfolio and the expansion of their evidence base of youth and educator experience and outcomes.

Image provided by BellXcel of a pre-COVID class.

What makes BellXcel stand out?

During COVID, the organization successfully created BellXcel Remote, an evidence-based, teacher-led solution that adapted the classroom experience for home use. Developed in partnership with Scholastic Education, the model provided administrators, teachers, and caregivers of children in grades K-8 with digital and paper-based tools to guide at-home learning with a strong social-emotional learning approach. Despite being largely a program focused on accelerating learning and providing supplemental support, BellXcel also incorporates hands-on activities that make the learning come to life

In post-program surveys, nine out of ten caregivers and scholars felt supported by teachers and found the BellXcel Remote solution provided a welcoming environment to voice opinions and ask questions. At least 80% of staff said scholars grew in key social-emotional skills, specifically abilities to overcome challenges, demonstrate growth mindset, and form healthy relationships with teachers. Eighty-five percent of families agreed the remote program strengthened connections with their child and 76% of staff agreed the program’s family engagement system promoted caring, consistent relationships between families and teachers.

Photo provided by Imagine Science.

Imagine Science

Imagine Science is a collaboration between YMCA, 4-H, Boys & Girls Club, and Girls Inc. whose mission is to inspire more under-represented youth to see STEM as a viable career path. The national collaboration trains affiliates to jointly lead and start high quality out-of-school STEM programs, increasing access to programs that build STEM engagement, career interest, and identity in especially fourth through eighth graders.

What makes Imagine Science stand out?

By leveraging the collective resources of four community-based organizations that together reach 18 million students a year, Imagine Science is in a unique position to facilitate STEM outcomes at scale. Additionally, Imagine Science not only provides the mechanisms for program affiliates to develop a STEM program, but also funds a planning phase for each local collaborative followed by three years of implementation before becoming self-sustaining.

Students start showing impacts after eleven hours of Imagine Science programming, with 75% of girls and 62% of boys reporting an increase in STEM engagement, 59% of girls and 45% of boys reporting an increase in STEM career interest, and 54% of girls and 43% of boys reporting an increase in STEM identity.

100% of Imagine Science sites were able to continue operating over the past year despite closures throughout the educational sector. Collaborating affiliates adapted by combining their assets in innovative ways including new curricula and ways to get materials to students and families, as well as the launch of new virtual programming and trainings. Additionally, the organization was able to provide supplemental support for students, including the distribution of 21,600 children’s books to students in Dallas.

The connection to school

Research shows that out-of-school programs can have positive effects on in-school student outcomes, including increased self-confidence, civic engagement, school attendance, and high school graduation rates, as well as decreased delinquency. But these benefits are even more likely when the school and out-of-school contexts work together. Fragmented and siloed educational initiatives will lack the perspective needed to give their participants the highest chance of success, making strategic partnerships between districts, community-based organizations, out-of-school time educational providers, and national networks essential. The four grantees featured above all have strong strategic partnerships that catalyze continuous improvement and scale.  

While there have been cases in the past where school districts have successfully partnered with afterschool and summer organizations, strong and effective alliances have been more so the exception than the norm. In a display of how critical this approach is for student success in the coming months and years, the Department of Education released a COVID-19 handbook on reopening schools that contains guidance on how districts can work with summer and afterschool programs. With funds from programs like the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers and the American Rescue Plan available to support out-of-school time programs, now is a critical time to strengthen the in- and out-of-school connection and allow for a more comprehensive approach to education as students transition between different spaces and contexts throughout the calendar year. 

Why we funded

We believe that curiosity is one of the most powerful tools for captivating the minds of young learners. Since summer programs can embed more flexibility into their pedagogy, they provide a unique opportunity for curiosity to be encouraged and cultivated. This means summer can serve as an important context for both enrichment and remediation, with districts potentially leveraging the engaging and interactive nature of summer STEM programs to help support the in-school learning goals of their students.

This summer in particular presents a unique opportunity to both re-engage disconnected students and help those who have fallen behind get to grade level. And given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increasing need for solutions that are free or low-cost to families, with such models depending on public dollars and robust philanthropic support.

There are many online resources that can support this work, like Help Kids Recover, National Summer Learning Association, and the Wallace Foundation’s Summer Learning toolkit. And while the methods used to promote positive student outcomes may differ, organizations’ efforts to facilitate a student-centered approach to learning make us not only hopeful but confident that together we can chart a path forward that takes the best of summer and makes it available year round.


Top image provided by Science Action Club. Thumbnail image provided by Camp Invention.